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[Libertarian historian] David Beito somehow found out about me and asked me to participate in this Historians Against the War organization. He had basically taken over their blog; no one else was interested in doing it. He was putting libertarian stuff on the blog, and they weren’t happy about it, but there was so little energy in that organization that they couldn’t bother one way or another. Then I came along and we really went after Obama hard, especially over what I would call his imperialist foreign policy prescriptions.
We also then were chastising the organization for not criticizing him. Even after Obama was elected, even after the inauguration, all they would do is put anti-Bush stuff on the front of the website, and it just drove us crazy. For months we kept saying, “Would you please now talk about the guy who’s in office?” Finally they expelled us.
reason: Are there other areas where libertarian scholarship has notably influenced your thinking?
Russell: Charles Paul Freund’s article for reason, “In Defense of Vulgarity,” was one of the first things by a libertarian I read. It was stunning. And it helped me see how the free market can produce genuine liberation for ordinary, working-class people and subvert repressive traditions more quickly and thoroughly than any formal social movement.
I think what I like most about libertarians is that they are perpetually oppositional. They never merge their identities with the sovereign power. When speaking of the nation-state, they don’t say “we.”
reason: Where do you see your work on civil rights fitting together with other strains of revisionist civil rights history?
Russell: It begins with Robin Kelley, a black historian. He burst onto the scene in the ’90s. He has a great book called Race Rebels, which every libertarian should read, even though Robin’s a communist. That’s where I part with him. But in particular in that book, he has several amazing articles that look at what Marxists call the lumpenproletariat. He has one chapter that was obviously an inspiration for me; it’s called “Shiftless of the World Unite!” It’s essentially the history of black resistance to work, which he champions. He says, basically, “Why is it a good thing to devote your life to work?”
The bottom-up history of the ’60s and ’70s made all black people into ideal American citizens. That’s what they had to do to make them into heroes to put them in textbooks. And Robin challenged that. He said, “As a matter of fact, there was something good about challenging white-dominant norms.”
But Robin and that generation, they make all that activity into this collectivist, proto-socialist set of events or activities, which I don’t. I say it is what it is. It’s people having fun, people having sex, people avoiding work, people fighting the cops in the street, but there’s no evidence of any explicit political discourse about it.
reason: You do talk at least some of the time in terms of political resistance. The thrust of the civil rights chapter is that these people who were less respectable played a major role in Birmingham and therefore in ending coerced segregation in the South.
Russell: Absolutely, but there’s no evidence that there was anything consciously political about it. They simply wanted to get the cops off their block or off their back, literally. Whereas civil rights was always an explicitly political project.
All the heroes in the book don’t speak. There are no manifestos. There’s no political discourse whatsoever. It’s simply behavior that I look at. And I don’t make any claims about their consciousness. That’s very important for me. One of my major issues with New Left historians is that they make lots and lots of claims on behalf of “the people.”
reason: Let me zero in on one example from your book. You mention the wave of strikes that hit the country in 1919, and you make a pretty interesting argument that they’re better understood as a sign of the rising American consumer culture than a sign of incipient American socialism.
Russell: The 1919 strike wave has always been portrayed as America’s revolutionary moment, that these were essentially socialistic strikes aimed at seizing control of industries. And in fact, not one of them was intended to do that. The leaders of many of the strikes were socialist. There’s no question about that. But the strikes were waged for higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours. Period. These were not Bolshevik demands. These were bread-and-butter issues: more stuff and more leisure. That’s completely consistent with the rising consumer culture at the time, and not consistent with socialism.
reason: A 1970s labor historian might push back by saying there were experiments in grassroots democracy, with Seattle becoming the American version of the Paris Commune for a week. You had people setting up committees to take care of garbage collection, things like that. That can be portrayed as an example of people trying to administer their society themselves.